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20 years ago this month, Tiger Woods begins greatest feat in sports

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour this week as defending champion at the Zozo Championship, which has relocated from Japan to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Woods has enjoyed plenty of success over the years.

Stunning 15-stroke romp in U.S. Open at Pebble Beach catapults Woods to 4 consecutive major championships and a 'Tiger Slam' that eclipses anything achieved by Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Sugar Ray Robinson and even that other great one, Wayne Gretzky

Twenty years has passed since the Summer of Slam, which began with Tiger Woods winning the first of four consecutive major titles, by 15 strokes at the 2000 U.S. Open. It was a ridiculous margin of victory, a gap beyond anyone’s comprehension, so pronounced a display of superiority that we probably should have realized what was coming.

Woods claimed the British Open by eight shots, then beat unheralded Bob May in a three-hole playoff to punctuate one of the most memorable PGA Championships ever. Eight months would pass before Woods completed the grandest of his extraordinary feats with a triumph at the 2001 Masters, immediately prompting debates over the veracity of the accomplishment as an actual “Grand Slam.”

Those differing viewpoints ultimately led to the term “Tiger Slam,” which leapt into golf’s lexicon with only a deferential nod to the calendar year. What Woods did in 2000-01 easily qualifies as one of the greatest achievements in all of sports. That it didn’t fully occur in a specific season does nothing to diminish its magnitude; you easily could validate the notion that a Tiger Slam is more difficult than what Bobby Jones pulled off in 1930.

Eight months of trying to sleep on the doorstep of history every night? Pressure and pillows make for strange bedfellows. Imperviousness to competitive stress is something we’ve come to expect from Woods, but in June 2000, he had yet to establish himself as the money-in-the-bank predator that would allow him to dominate the entire decade.

Measuring magnificence in sports is obviously a very subjective exercise. How do you compare Babe Ruth’s 1921 (or 1927) to Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-62? Sugar Ray Robinson won 20 fights in 1950, 13 of them by knockout. As unimaginable as that is today, would you rank it ahead of Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals in 1981-82? Only one NHL player (Alex Ovechkin) has scored more than 60 in a season since 1996.

Different games. Different eras. There’s also the complexity of separating career production from above-and-beyond brilliance over a condensed period. Among those who excelled in team sports, how much should the championship factor figure in? Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in ’62 but failed to lead the Philadelphia Warriors beyond the Eastern Conference finals, nor was he named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

Wilt the Stilt never did get much love. So to speak.

A 2011 article on BleacherReport.com listed Chamberlain, Gretzky, Ruth and Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders (2,628 rushing yards and 39 TDs in 1988) ahead of Woods on its list of the 20 greatest individual seasons ever. Ted Williams, who batted .406 and led the American League in home runs and reached base 55 percent of the time in 1941, was relegated to honorable mention. Having covered mainstream sports for the first 12 years of my career, I’m keenly aware that many of my former brethren have limited appreciation for the vagaries of competitive golf.

The Tiger Slam is the most profound accomplishment in sports history for several reasons, the least of which being that I write about the game for a living. Start with the 23 shots by which Woods won those first two majors, triggering the intimidation intangible that carried him to unparalleled success for the duration of the 2000s. The guy wasn’t unbeatable, but it looked and seemed as if he were, and anyone who was watching knew the rest of the field felt the same way. It created a huge edge for Woods on the biggest Sundays of the year.

From there, it becomes a matter of perspective. The importance of winning cannot be overstated, compromised or trivialized. For all the awe-inspiring statistics compiled by every transcendent athlete in every generation, there always has been just one commonly shared and singular objective in any sport.

Victory.

You play to win the game, and Woods won everything that meant anything over the longest stretch in golf. Throughout his own remarkable career, Jack Nicklaus won back-to-back majors just once: the 1972 Masters and U.S. Open. Ben Hogan claimed three majors in 1953 but skipped the PGA Championship, which was a match-play event at the time.

Team sports are a different animal, but the goal doesn’t change. Other players have hit 60 homers since Ruth revolutionized baseball almost a century ago, although a few of them did it with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Chamberlain didn't win an NBA title until after he changed his style of play. Gretzky didn’t win a Stanley Cup until two years after his record-shattering season.

All three were among the greatest sportsmen who ever lived, but individual statistics will get you only so far. They faced but one opponent day after day, whereas Woods took on 100 or so legitimate foes and vanquished them all on a regular basis. No umpires, no referees, no authentic home-field advantage. Just one man and his golf ball on what is by far the largest playing field in any sport, susceptible to everything from a change in the weather to the rub of the green.

It is highly unlikely that any of us will see another Summer of Slam, although our great-grandchildren might witness a similar accomplishment and proclaim it to be the greatest of all-time. Until then, Tiger Woods played his game at a higher level than anyone who ever walked the face of the earth. It might take quite a while to wash away those footprints.

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